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Alabama churches fight anti-immigration law

Associated Press | 7/19/2011, 11:22 p.m.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, many Alabama churches didn’t join the fight to end legalized racial segregation. Now some churchgoers see a chance for redemption by opposing the toughest anti-immigration law in America.

They see ominous parallels between the era of segregation that relegated backs to a shadowy, second-class existence in white Alabama, and a new state law that bans helping illegal immigrants — most of them Hispanic — secure a place to live, a job or even a ride to the store.

Matt Lacey, pastor of a United Methodist church once attended by Birmingham’s infamous segregationist police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, who set vicious police dogs on black protesters in front of newspaper cameras, said there are all sorts of reasons Alabama Christians are opposed to the immigration law. Making amends for past inaction is among them, he said.

“For me, as pastor of a church that was engaged in that battle, it is very important,” said Lacey. “If we take redemption very seriously, then it not only covers our sins but our past actions as a church. I think for some, there is a tendency to want to be on the side of right on this issue. ... I would like to think the church just wants to do what’s right.”

For much of the 20th century, some cross-burning Ku Klux Klan terror gang members took off their hoods and sat in the pews with other white churchgoers on Sunday mornings, and few white congregations actively opposed segregation.

Some black churches were hesitant to get involved then for fear of white backlash.

Now that Alabama has passed what is widely considered America’s most restrictive state law against illegal immigration, mainstream churches, faith-based organizations and individual members are leading the opposition.

“I think what happened in the ’60s may be a stimulus for the action that you have seen many of the churches taking on this,” said Chriss H. Doss, an attorney and ordained Southern Baptist minister.

At 56, the Rev. Al Garrett is old enough to recall some faith communities sitting on the sidelines during the civil rights movement. Garrett, who helped organize a prayer rally that drew a few hundred people Sunday night in Huntsville, said the difference now is uplifting.

“I’ve thanked God that I’ve been here to see the way people of faith are taking a stand on this,” he said.

After a prayer for wisdom, members of the Birmingham City Council recently passed a unanimous resolution calling for the repeal of the law. That same day, ministers and lay people gathered to discuss opposition to the law in the same church where, more than 50 years ago, white segregationists gathered to form a group to oppose white and black children going to school together.

Urged to come to a rally and candlelight march sponsored by churches and faith-based groups, a diverse crowd estimated at 2,000 marched quietly through downtown streets on a recent Saturday night near where police dogs snapped at black demonstrators two generations ago.